“Who’s Your ’80s Hunk?” asks one online personality quiz. Are you a Scott Baio girl? Jason Bateman? Or, like me, do you love bad boy John Stamos? This isn’t one of the popular BuzzFeed quizzes that have been flooding your Facebook feed for the past month; it’s from 10 years ago. I’ve been taking online quizzes like these since 2004, thanks to LiveJournal. Along with sites like Xanga and Blogger, LiveJournal was a kind of proto-Tumblr where my friends and I could post our high-school class schedules and test out new curse words we’d learned. For a brief period, it became extremely popular among my friends to fill out these automated quizzes and post the results to our LiveJournals.
Ten years later, our quiz-sharing platforms have evolved, but our love of quizzes remains exactly the same. The narcissism evident in those long-ago Web 1.0 quizzes has wrapped around to again become popular. If you have a Facebook account, you’ve probably noticed that all of your friends are sharing BuzzFeed quizzes with reckless abandon. Their quiz “What City Should You Actually Live In?” has been viewed more than 18 million times and has been liked on Facebook 2.5 million times. Maybe you’ve been doing it too! Perhaps you’ve learned which Muppet you are, which pop diva you are, or what your randomly generated soul mate’s name is. (Coming soon: “What Lovecraftian Phantasmagoria Are You?”) On my Facebook feed, I’ve been surprised to see friends who are normally “haters,” in BuzzFeed’s parlance, sharing their BuzzFeed quiz results. What makes these quizzes so overwhelmingly shareable—even though they feel, at heart, like baloney?
That isn’t to say online quizzes have festered in unpopularity since the glory days of LiveJournal. But BuzzFeed’s and Zimbio’s use of quizzes has led to a resurgence of the form. And quizzes aren’t just reserved for millennials: The most popular item published by the New York Times in 2013 was a quiz—one created by an intern, no less.
Nor is this a phenomenon that started with the World Wide Web. Rorschach tests were widely popular in the 1920s, and relationship quizzes have been Cosmo’s bread and butter since the ’60s. (Amy, the complicated missing wife in Gone Girl, makes her living writing these kinds of quizzes.) The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a more intellectually accepted version of this quiz, and I’ve heard friends rattle off the four characters that supposedly define their personality—ESTJ? INTP?—like their Social Security numbers.
We like to believe the world is categorize-able. On the dark side of human nature, this desire to simplify the world is one justification for prejudice of all kinds; on the light side, it makes lists super fun. Life is so much easier when you can lump people into different boxes! Growing up, I’d often play a game with myself trying to dictate people’s behaviors based on random characteristics: All people who say they like the Rolling Stones more than the Beatles are pompous jerks. All people who wear JNCO jeans are secretly into hentai. All people who drive Audis are deeply unhappy with their lives. These assumptions had questionable basis in truth but appealed to my naive desire to simplify the world.
Viral quizzes allow us to easily categorize ourselves. Even more, they provide us with the instant affirmation that we share some part of ourselves with other people (or cities, or David Lynch characters, or Bill O’Reillys) that we admire. By sharing your quiz results on Facebook, you are saying: Look! Like a Ravenclaw, I am intelligent yet kind. Like Daenerys Targaryen, I am not to be trifled with. Like the city of London, I have a refined appreciation for history and literature. Like Animal, I embody #YOLO.
Of course, no one actually believes these quizzes are going to uncover some dark mystery about themselves. The quizzes themselves are designed in such a slapdash way that they seem to follow no internal logic. (I just deliberately tried to pick all the most Beaker-like answers in the Muppets quiz—including choosing “Meep” as my favorite word!—and was told I’m the “Mahna Mahna” guy.) Though, if you think about it, the seemingly random results could be a deliciously nihilistic commentary on the human condition. We are, after all, blobs of amino acids thrown together in an endless vacuum. BuzzFeed, you are so philosophical sometimes. You should live in Paris!
Since the viral mega-hit that was “What City Should You Live In?” it seems like every BuzzFeed employee has rushed to create a quiz of her own. And before BuzzFeeders peg me as a “hater,” I’ll note that I’ve greatly enjoyed watching these quizzes evolve, as high-school me did way back when, from earnest and eager-to-please, to sardonic, to openly half-assing it.
But do any of your Facebook friends really care if you’re more of a Spock than a Kirk? No. No, really: No one cares. Anyone who thinks they have such empathetic friends is delusional. (Mood-congruent delusional or non-bizarre delusional? Soon there will be a quiz!) Most of us are not delusional; we realize our social media acquaintances probably aren’t interested in our favorite condiment, but we still go ahead and take these quizzes anyway. (I sure did. Apparently I am “Chill Bill O’Reilly.”) So enticing and whimsical is the interface, so bright and fun is the self-categorization, that to click the “share” button seems only natural: The proper next step in a process, a tiny drop in the deluge that threatens to overtake Facebook entirely.
Jordan Shapiro at Forbes has another theory for why we find these quizzes so irresistible—that we are displacing our anxiety about having our information constantly tracked by submitting to frivolous methods of collection:
Displacement, according to Freud, is an unconscious process through which the psyche transfers energy, ideas, and emotions away from things that cause anxiety, and toward similar things that are superficial, whimsical, and distracting.
In this case, rather than focusing on the algorithmic targeting and surveillance that has become so ordinary in our everyday lives, we distract ourselves by focusing on meaningless algorithmic categorization.
In their world-simplifying way, quizzes combat the feeling of information overload with which Internet denizens are all too familiar. But one by one, these simple quizzes oversaturate our Facebook feeds with their results. They purport to have a simple solution to a difficult problem—how to define yourself as a human being?—but in the end they’re just another way to elide the thornier questions of how to go about building a life worthy of admiration.
So, which type of Internet user are you? By merit of making it all the way to the end of this article, you’re officially a Smart Internet User. Tell all your friends!